In the Garden: Drought-tolerant plants for summer

Drought Resistant Plants for the Southeast

Willis Johnson is an avid gardener living at Lake Oconee with his wife, Devin, where they tend to their two-acre garden at Foxglove Cottage that includes close to 7,000 unique species of plants.
Willis Johnson is an avid gardener living at Lake Oconee with his wife, Devin, where they tend to their two-acre garden at Foxglove Cottage that includes close to 7,000 unique species of plants.

I’m often asked what plants can be used that you can’t kill and are drought tolerant.  I think more folks are asking this lately due to the dire droughts on the West Coast or due to the cost of public water where they don’t have their own well or access to lake water. Many folks find watering non-drought tolerant plants extremely expensive.

I personally think that this is the wrong question to ask.  We have a pretty mild climate here and get our rainfall every month and it falls in relative even ways across the year.  Do you realize that the following is the average precipitation for Greensboro by month?

Jan Feb Mar Apr May Jun Jul Aug Sep Oct Nov Dec
Average monthly precipitation 5.1” 4.6” 5.3” 4.0” 4.0” 3.4” 5.5” 3.8” 3.2” 2.7” 3.1” 4.0”

This might not be enough rain to have a good rich green and vibrant Zoysia lawn (it likes roughly 1″ of water per week) but it comes mighty close.  Also, just look at our wonderful surrounding woods and notice what you see.  I’m sure you all have seen beautiful Dogwoods, Redbuds, Oak trees, Beautyberry shrubs and many other desirable plants.  Do they get extra watering, fertilizing, insecticides, pruning, and other gardening chores applied to them?  No!  They are doing just fine without our involvement.

When I’m asked about plants that you can’t kill, I find that’s impossible since mother nature is always eliminating plants.  Plants have life spans (some may live longer than others but they all eventually die). Additionally, natural events like high winds, fires, and insect invasions occur. We don’t normally notice this in our beautiful wooded surroundings due to the natural successions of plants.

Why do homeowners have so many problems with keeping plants alive?  In most cases I’ve found this to be due to two main reasons.

The first reason is getting the wrong plant.  You need to get plants that like our climate and conditions or you will have to baby them and prepare unique environments or just be reconciled you’re going to kill them every time you try to grow them.  I was raised in Oregon and grew to love Gunnera (a beautiful large leafed South America plant) that can not handle our heat and humidity; especially in the summer. In Oregon, the bulk of the rain comes in the winter and early spring. Summers are typically dry and cool at night. That is not the case here.  Our summers cook and then drown many plants.  We can’t grow the beautiful west coast Fir trees for the same reason. The beautiful northern Lilacs, blue flowering Meconopsis and many northern conifers also can’t handle our heat in the winter or summer. That is a clue to how get the right plant.  Get plants that are native to the southeast and locations that have a similar climate to our own.  Japan and much of the Orient has a climate very similar to ours and that is why you see so many plant introductions from those countries that do so well in our gardens. There are no native Cryptomerias here, nor Hydrangea macrophyllas.  We have our own native conifers and other Hydrangea species here and they obviously do well.  What you need to be careful of, are those plants from Europe or even our own West Coast. There’s a good chance they won’t do well and will quickly die in your garden.

The second reason that many people kill their plants is that even though they may pick appropriate plants they don’t plant them properly.  Most Georgia soil around here is beautiful red clay.  It has great nutrients and if you prepare it properly your plants will thrive.  Too often people get their shovel out, dig a hole big enough to get the plant root ball in and then shovel back the removed soil and water it in.  They typically do this in the spring or summer.  So what is wrong with that?

There are a whole bunch of mistakes in this approach.  First off, fall is your best planting time for almost anything except for annuals. You plant annuals typically in the season they will bloom and knowing they probably won’t live and come back the following year. The reason fall time is the best time to plant trees and shrubs is due to our very hot/humid summers. To tolerate this stress a new plant needs time to establish and grow their root system to be able to nourish the plant. Roots grow and expand into the new planting location during the fall to spring time period. Your plant may look asleep above ground but be assured there is plenty of growth activity going on below the soil level in the winter. This also is assuming you didn’t do the cardinal sin as previously described by ‘digging a hole and planting the plant’.

Clay is great for making pottery.  When you dig a ‘clay hole’ you have made a bowl in your garden and it will hold water resulting in rotting out the roots of the plant. That’s a great way to kill plants. It is best to amend your clay resulting in a large raised bed (use compost, leaf mulch, and other organic materials) while building up the soil level. This results in great drainage and an environment that is ‘root friendly’.  A new plant usually requires some tender care the first season – additional water, fertilizer and mulching  – and then if you picked the right plant you should have a plant that can happily handle our heat and humidity. In a nut shell, don’t make a $0.25 hole for your $25 plant. You should make a $25 bed for you $25 plant!.

There are some plants that don’t do well in times of drought or need more rain then what we may be getting. Plants like that Zoysia lawn, or those Hydrangea macrophyllas that you all love, along with many others, require extra water.  However there are many plants that thrive after they get established that first year. If in doubt, remember the plants in the woods that surround us.

1.Glowing Embers
Glowing Embers

Have you thought about a Japanese maple?  Acer palmatum ‘Glowing Embers’ is a wonderful variety that copes very well with our climate and minimal attention after it is established. It’s green from spring through summer and then a brilliant red that will make you think of glowing embers in the fall.



Acer palmatum ‘Ryusen’ is also a wonderful Japanese maple that can handle full sun and our climate. It’s a weeper and if you don’t train it up, it will just spread about on the ground. We have ours trained up to top out at about 5′ feet and we are now letting it cascade down from there.



Have you noticed the miles of Crepe Myrtles along I-20 while driving into Atlanta?  Do you think they get extra watering and attention? No, they don’t. They bloom wonderfully year after year.  They love sun to bloom well. The key is planting them in the right place. Don’t plant them too close to your home as they get huge and then home owners think you need to do ‘crepe murder’ to keep them confined and to get them to bloom well. This is not true. There are dwarf varieties. Get them if you want them next to your home.

The large ones, like our favorite Lagerstroemia indica ‘Natchez’ should be planted in full sun where they can be fully appreciated. Do not ‘crepe murder’ them by cutting back all their branches to a uniform height. Let them grow to be a graceful full tree.  When you prune, just prune out the sucker growth or stems to keep a clump to 5-7 tree stems or one main stem from which the limbs grow out from. Prune out crossing branches, especially those that rub against each other and this will promote air movement in the center of the tree.  If you prune out the old flower heads prune only the stems that are pinky finger size or smaller.  Make sure you have them where you can get close to them as well, as you’ll love the cinnamon exfoliating bark of Natchez.


Having already mentioned the Beautyberry shrub, there are many unique cultivars besides our native(some of them are from the orient by the way) that will provide you a lot of options in berry color (lavender/white/purple) and foliage that varies from green to variegated. Here are ones we’ve grown in our gardens: Callicarpa americana ‘Lactea’, Callicarpa dichotoma ‘Early Amethyst’, Callicarpa  japonica ‘Leucocarpa’ and ‘Snow Storm’ along with Callicarpa mollis ‘Variegated’. We also have the native Callicarpa

Early Amethyst
Early Amethyst

americana growing in the conservation area edging our gardens and have had some self seed in our gardens as well.  You can see there are a multitude of species within the Beautyberry Genus Callicarpa.  We grow them in part shade to full sun (with additional watering) and they grow wild in part shade to fairly shady areas.

Crimson Beauty
Crimson Beauty

Another sun loving shrub is the flowering Quince.  We have collected 13 different kinds and they have wonderful blooms in early spring.  They are also a very tough shrub. We have Chaenomeles ‘Fusion’, Chaenomeles contorta ‘Red’Chaenomeles speciosa ‘Cameo’, ‘Chojuraku’, ‘Crimson Beauty’, ‘Double Take Orange Storm’, ‘Double Take Scarlet Storm’, ‘Jet Trail’, ‘Kurokoji’, ‘Nivalis’,Scarlet Storm’, along with ‘Toyo-Nishiki and Chaenomeles superba ‘Crimson & Gold’.  We’d recommend going with the speciosa species and our absolute favorite cultivars are ‘Cameo’, ‘Double Take Orange Storm’ and ‘Toyo-Nishiki’. They do produce some fruit (we don’t use them and discard them). Some folks make jams from them.

Doubletake Orange
Doubletake Orange

Hollies are also a very drought tolerant genus of plants.  If you haven’t been to Callaway gardens in Georgia you must add it to your bucket list. Their Holly trail will inspire you!  The genus Ilex is full of very tough evergreen and deciduous varieties. They vary in their ability to handle shade and provide a tremendous amount of interest to garden borders and provide a great backdrop for other plants. Also, they are used for screens or simply as specimen plants. The berries vary in color from red to orange to yellow to white to black depending on the species and cultivar you select. We love each spring when a huge flock of Cedar Waxwings (birds) come in and strip our weeping Yaupon Holly berries (Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’) – the Creek Indians made a tea from this tree that induced vomiting and prepared them for their religious gatherings and is the reason it has the species name of vomitoria. We prefer the evergreen Hollies over the deciduous species but we have them all.

Nellie Stevens
Nellie Stevens

In fact we have Ilex ‘Nellie R. Stevens’, Ilex aquifolium Argenteomarginata’, Ilex x attenuata ‘Savannah’, Ilex cornuta ‘Burfordii’, Ilex crenata ‘Sky Pencil’, Ilex maximowicziana, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, ‘Sparkleberry’, andWinterberry’ along with Ilex vomitoria ‘Pendula’. Note that some Hollies are dioecious which means that they need a boy and girl variety to produce a decent berry crop (especially the deciduous varieties in the verticillata species).  A number of our Hollies are native to Georgia.


Another good drought tolerant flowering shrub is the Spiraea. Many Spiraeas are from Japan and do very well in the south and provide wonderful leaf/flower color variations.  We absolutely adore Spiraea  japonica ‘Gold Mound’, Spiraea nipponica ‘Snowmound’, and Spiraea thunbergii ‘Ogon’. We especially like the chartreuse colored leaf varieties.  A shot of gold in the garden!


If you want water loving plants like your Zoysia lawn just realize you’re going to need extra watering in those weeks you don’t get an inch of rain.  If you want plants like Gunnera or Himilayan Blue Poppy you’re going to have to get a second home or move to a different climate. If you want plants that won’t die, sorry, they don’t exist. If you want plants that can live with very little water then you have to look into desert living plants. Please recognize that most of them can’t handle our colder winters, or humidity or rainfall. A notable exception is Opuntia. It is commonly called the Prickly Pear Cactus. It grows in the deserts, as well as here in the south, and even in Oregon. Tough plants but some folks don’t like the needles. There is a spineless variety and we have it too. Look for Opuntia cacanapa ‘Ellisiana’.  You will love the flowers and lovely purple fruit.

So remember – plant in the fall, after you’ve built up and amended your raised beds.  Baby the plants that first year and then enjoy those tougher plants as nature does the work for you.


We always recommend you get plants from local nurseries that raise and grow their own plants. That way you can be assured you’ll be getting plants that do well in our climate and have already adapted to our heat and humidity. You also will typically get a very knowledgeable owner or staff member who can answer your questions about a particular plants drought tolerance, sun to shade requirements and any other concerns you may have.

There are some wonderful nurseries for shrubs and trees not that far from us. Goodness Grows nursery is in Lexington Georgia and is beautifully laid out to see plants in great combinations and in situations you might mimic at home. See for directions and more information about what they are selling.

Another great nursery that specializes in Japanese maples is Maple Ridge Nursery. It’s located between Lake Oconee and Atlanta, and is just 1 ½ miles off I-20. See for directions and more information about what they are selling.

Another favorite nursery that’s a little further away, and is in South Carolina (Augusta) just over the border is Nursery Caroliniana. It has many hard to find trees and shrubs and is definitely worth the trip. See for directions and when you go, say hi to Ted and/or his sister.

If you are having a tough time finding a plant locally you can do what I do and that is to order plants online. I have many, many favorite nurseries I go to for those hard to find gems. I’ll just give you a few that I have used and found great results with:

Forestfarm Nursery in Oregon – great for those Quinces I mentioned and many, many, many other plants. You’ll have to do your own research on ensuring the plant is good for the South. See

Rarefind Nursery in New Jersey – I’ve used them for a number of Magnolias. See

Camellia Forest Nursery in North Carolina – I’ve used them for many Camellias and Prunus mumes. See

Plant Delights Nursery in North Carolina – I’ve used them for many perennials. They are also the source where I got our Opuntia from. See

Happy gardening!